Training on Basic Counselling Skills

On 1st and 2nd April 2019, PEC in collaboration with Co.Create Change and HDRC held a workshop on basic counselling skills for our grassroots activists and counsellors. 

It was a two day workshop and there were about 25 participants.

Day 1

Everybody introduced themselves to each other as well as to the trainers and briefly explained how long they had been providing counselling. While introducing himself, Usman bhai from PEC asked how one could inwards as well as wondered aloud if it was possible, while counselling, to look inwards as well as outwards and how to go about managing ourselves. It was an important point to be raised and Nivedita-ji replied saying that it was important to stay with our client’s pain and then go about trying to find the facts. 

At this point, Nivedita-ji – one of our trainers, encouraged us to learn from each other more than from her and told us that was the prime reason for creating this space.

She then asked everyone what the meaning of counselling was for us. Some of the answers that came to the forefront were :

  • Talking to someone with the goal of calming them down
  • Listening to them
  • Not being judgemental while listening to them

After the participants shared, the trainer said that counselling was first of all a relationship b/w the counsellor and the client. If as counsellors, we can’t build trust and confidence, we won’t be able to successfully counsel.

At this point, Huraben asked : “How do we deal with a society that depends on us to solve their problems” to which Nivedita-ji replies that “You must remove the notion that you are there to solve a problem. You are not. If you help her raise her voice against everyone, rebel against everyone and she does it, you’ll come back to your setting unharmed, but she will likely not be able to bear the consequences. Will that be fair? No. You have to help them play with their strengths and don’t always strive for success. Even if she were to succeed at one point.” 

As most participants hold a dual relationship with the client of legal activists as well as counsellors, this was a particularly important piece of information early on in the training. Most of the participants had spent several months/years in their careers trying to help their clients get legal help and justice.

The trainer emphasised that counselling was a often slow process that did not aim to reach a goal of “solving” from the very first session. It usually took several sessions and the idea was to allow the client to feel empowered and reach a solution themselves.

After a short tea break, participants were split up into tiny groups and given a few questions to answer. This was then to be followed by a presentation.  The questions were, 

  1. Counselling is a relationship. What is the difference between this one and the others?
  2. What should the goals of counselling be?

After the groups discussed amongst themselves, a presentation of all the groups followed with some good insights. 

Nivedita’s answers were :

  • Counselling is not an equal relationship. There is an imbalance of give and take. People come to us because of their needs. The relationship exists purely on a need basis. It is dependent on the client and the focus is purely on the client’s needs. Another important thing to note about this is also that this relationship is a time based one. 
  • It isn’t a blood relationship but one of confidence. Client and counselors are binded by confidentiality. There is a boundary in the relationship and we have to respect it. It is important to realise that we do not have to become their family because they already have one. We are their supporter and are walking with them and if they fall it’s okay. It is not upto us to chide them. 
  • It’s a firm relationship. We follow a tone of “Let’s see how we can stop this from happening again” vs. “This shouldn’t happen again.” We cannot say things like, “Why did you do this?” and “Not again!”. 
  • As a counsellor, we need to have a time frame in mind otherwise life will leave them behind. 

Next, we did a trust exercise. We were paired up and one was asked to put a blindfold on. The other was then asked to guide them across the room while making sure they don’t bump into anything and not talking to them at all – just guiding them with hands. The partners were then asked to switch places and asked to lead the other. At the end, people were asked to share their insights. One of the big reveal was that if we could guide them through the room without saying a word, then it would also be easy to counsel them without giving out any advice. The focus is primarily on the client’s needs. 

Next, we covered the goals of counselling. In counselling, we aim to help the clients to bring about awareness, changes in their behaviour, learn better coping mechanisms, better decision making, help them attain emotional stability, build functional relationships and help them generate more options. Of course, as mentioned earlier, this needs to be done within a certain set time frame in mind. One thing that was emphasised over and over was to help the client become aware of the fact that they were completely capable by themselves of change in themselves as well as in their life.

Often, while sitting in a counselling session, it’s easy to get led away with problems that a client comes in with and allow focus to stray away from the client themselves.

In theory, it seemed easy enough, we would soon find out, that it was much harder to achieve this whilst sitting on the counsellor’s chair. 

After talking about the what of counselling, we next tackled the how of it. How must one approach a client and what should our behaviour be. These questions were answered in this segment. 

The main approach that we talked about was the SOLER system.

Holding a Square posture, Open demeanor, Leaning forward, maintaining Eye contact and a Relaxed posture. The physical behaviour of a counsellor is important because a client is paying attention to everything we do. Having a relaxed and open demeanor also aids the client in opening up about their problems and establishing a level of trust and confidence. 

With the SOLER system in mind, we were then instructed on what to do whilst in session. 

Listen to them (both verbal and non verbal cues) and Attend to them mentally and physically.

Next, Nivedita gave a question to the group and asked us to walk to different sides of the room based on whether or not we thought that the answer was yes or no. Upon hearing the question, the crowd condensed quite overwhelmingly to one end and a few people remained on the other end. 

The question was : “Do you believe that in this society, a woman has to get married?” 

The opposing groups were then told to convince the other side and bring them to their side. 

After the ensuing argument and conversations, Niveditaji probed as to what was really coming between us and our ability to listen to the other side. Primarily, it was our judgements and perceptions that come in the way of our ability. This is where the distinction of fact and interpretation was made clear to us. 

Fact is what exists and is undisputed. Eg : This font color is black. 

Opinion is what our perception of the fact is. Eg : In my opinion, this font color is bland 

Judgement is our complete confidence in our opinion, i.e a blank statement. Eg : This font color is bland. 

The key was to constantly separate fact from interpretation when we are listening to the client. The interpretation puts a filter in front of us while listening to the client and we only see them through that. Our barriers can be of the emotional, religious or cultural nature. 

Communication is a two way process. Both sides interpret it differently. There is what the speaker says, how we interpret it, listen to it, respond and vice versa. 


In counselling, a lot of importance is given to feelings. What are feelings? How do we identify feelings? How do you connect with the other person?

When these questions were first asked to the participants, the answers were more similar to behaviours than to feelings. The difference is critical to understand as there is immense importance placed on feelings and emotions in counselling. 

Why are feelings important? 

If there was a problem in the past that isn’t a problem anymore, there will just be indifference. There will be no feelings attached to it. Once feelings are attached to something, they take over the brain and the brain loses capacity for logical thinking. The counsellors job is to bring the emotional part of the brain back in control. When we are emotional, we see little else. Our job is to get the emotional part to stabilise so that the brain can function again. To demonstrate this point across, they drew the brain on the board and showed how inflated the emotional part becomes when emotions are overriding the brain, therefore leaving little room for logic.  

Understanding the feelings is important. Most people try to solve the problems but do not get into why those problems exist in the first place. 

After this explanation, Nivedita asked everyone to come forward and identify emotions in a counselling role play session. 

During this activity, several key points stood out. Some of them were : 

  1. How to connect to the other person’s pain and identify their emotion
  2. How every word holds importance and how one can get more information out. 
  3. How to ask questions about what they are feeling – “apko dar lag raha hai?” “kya apko chinta ho rahi hai?”
  4. How to identify emotions. In one of the examples, the client was complaining about how the brother wouldn’t listen to her and spend all his time with his friends. A participant pointed out correctly that she was jealous that he was spending all his time elsewhere. 
  5. The first thing in order to get their brains to stabilize is to capture emotions. Second, is to listen to the tone. Where is the client placing stress in a sentence? That will allow you to pick up on the emotion. 
  6. Another hint is that feelings are single words. If you are struggling to identify it in a single word, you may be thinking of a behaviour instead of a feeling. 

After this activity, she showed us a painting. It pictured several women – possibly in distress or agony -around a bed, in which another woman was lying down. I could not identify the painting or what age it was from but it strongly reminded me of ‘The Death of Socrates’ by the french painter Jacques-Louis David. I only give this reference, so you, the reader,  have something to base this activity on. So, she shows this painting, and asks us to identify the emotions that the people pictured in it are feeling. Several answers like “sad, upset, traumatised” came up. Nivedita looked around the room and said that we, in fact, had no way of identifying these emotions because we could not ask these people. There is no other way to identify an emotion apart from asking. This needs emphasizing upon – We cannot say anything definitely about what other people are feeling unless we ask them. 

To make her point, she asked the room to identify their own behaviors when they were feeling angry. Several behaviours arose – throwing things around, shutting themselves off, leaving the house, crying etc. After we all gave in our inputs, she told us that it was important to listen and understand how our clients are behaving when they are feeling something. When you understand them, you are already winning half the battle. Listening to the tone of their voice is also important because they leak out different feelings. 

Nivedita emphasized that as counsellors, we should not be assuming anything. In fact, as counsellors, we know even less than other people do as we understand the importance of words and emotions. 

After the first stage of identifying feelings, came the next stage of exploring. 


To demonstrate this stage, she started calling people to the chair one by one to practice counselling with Jagruti – the second trainer. Once you have succeeded in identifying the problem and the emotion, what does one do?

Sharifa was the first one to come forward. The practice session included Jagruti saying that she wanted to study further but that her family was not supporting her. Sharifa asked to meet the family and said that she would try to convince them. Usmanbhai came forward and asked for further family history but then asked to speak to them so he could make them understand. More people came forward and tried to extract more information from her. 

I noticed how most people focused on the problem rather than on the client. Nivedita said that it was about getting away from the mindset of helping to solve the problem and putting the client’s needs at the forefront. She further advised us to not jump to conclusions but to listen. For eg. f a client says that no one listens to them at home, don’t take them at their word. Explore further. 

  • Who doesn’t listen?
  • Who lives at home? 

Don’t bring in your perceptions of what you think she lives with or deals with. Explore her world and explore her reasons. Don’t give advice on solutions. She is sitting in front of you because nothing else worked and no advice that she was given worked. She has family and friends in her life who already do give her advice. A job of a counsellor is to listen to her and understand her. 

A point that arose, that Prita pointed out was how it was difficult for legal activists to separate that role of theirs from the role of a counsellor. Especially in a practice session, when one of the participants advised that a DV case could be filed in her situation which was unethical in the role of a counsellor. At this point, Nivedita said that for people who have to play both the role of the legal activist and the counsellor, if we have tried everything else and nothing else works, we can ask them if they need legal information. If they say yes to that, we can go ahead and give that information to them. 

Important things to look out for :

  • The minute you realise that there is something emotional happening within you emotionally, you are going wrong. 
  • Learn how to be comfortable with silence. 

As a counsellor, you have to ask the following questions :

  • What 
  • Where
  • When
  • How

Cannot ask Why. This is because, once you start asking why, the client feels like they have to justify everything and it alienates them from you. Asking the other questions, may lead to a solution faster. 

This concluded the end of Day 1. There were more things that needed to be said but because everybody had too much to ingest at the end of the first day, Nivedita decided to let us go. 

Day 2

On the second day, we started with the self. Nivedita asked us what animal or bird we identified ourselves with and what particular characteristics they possessed that made us say so. Some identified as pigeons, while others identified as lions. 

From this activity, Nivedita demonstrated that we all different ways and different things to identify our ‘self’ with. When a client first comes to you, he comes with a version of his ‘self’. As a counsellor, we have to identify what else is a part of that seelf. This consists of feelings, behaviours, values.

It is like peeling an onion. The three most important things are :

The innermost part : Thoughts (T)

The middle part : Emotions (E)

The outermost part : Actions (A)

As a counsellor, you start with the outermost part and slowly making your way to the inside. Actions, will help to identify the emotions and that will lead you to the thought. This was the TEA system. We sit with the TEA system in front of the client. Behind his actions, are his emotions. Behind his emotions, are his thoughts. So, we build from that and notice all three. In all types of counselling, there’s a change required in the TEA system. Bringing about a change in thoughts takes time, which is why one focuses on the emotions first. This will help bring about a change in the thoughts. 

Here again, Nivedita again drew the image from yesterday and demonstrated how emotions tend to take over the brain. When we work on the feelings and allow them to stabilize, it automatically changes actions and thoughts. When a client talks about himself/herself, he will talk about his experiences, his behaviours, his thoughts and his feelings. Because of that experience, and him talking about it, we have to identify emotions and thoughts. 

His/her experiences will be something someone is doing/not doing to him/her. A client will usually drag a counsellor to his experiences and that is likely all that he will notice. It is the counsellor’s responsibility, to listen to him and draw him towards the TEA system.

So, one must listen to the experiences, pay attention to behaviours and identify the emotions. Changes will come about using this TEA system. 

After a chai break, we went straight to practice sessions.

Our goals were

  • Probe for the problem
  • Find out emotions and actions
  • Ask for how high the discomfort is. For eg. on a scale of 1-10, where are you on the pain? It is very important to know where the suffering falls on the scale. 
  • The issue of suicide – when a client mentions suicide, it’s imperative to understand that it is already out of our hands. It is beyond our capability. We must not leave them at this point, but help them get more help. When a crisis occurs, suicide doesn’t usually happen. When someone mentions suicide, it means that their problem is beyond their coping mechanism skills. If they are saying that they want to commit suicide, what they are saying is that life is meaningless. It is important to understand that it’s a serious matteer. You have to reach out to the family. Remember that life for them feels to oheavy and it seems impossible therefore death becomes the answer. 
  • In the exercise, we focus on presenting the problem and identifying it. 
  • It’s okay to make mistakes, we are encouraged to 

Some key points we got out of everyone coming and practicing a session, 

  1. Everytime we say, “You’re right”, or “I get that” and you don’t say that at some other points, the client will analyze that. It is not upto us to identify what’s right or wrong. We simply have to explore their world. 
  2. When we talk about parents (in cases of child-parent conflict), do not side with the parents. Get the client to talk. Ask questions like, do you think your parents love you, what could be the reason they wouldn’t let you go, explore other reasons of their conflict. the more details you ask, the more they will talk, the lesser the emotions. One must drop their filters and wear hers/his. 
  3. If you start giving advice, you lose the client’s trust. 
  4. Questions one could ask : “How did you explain this?”, “Who did you talk to?”, “What happens when you react?”, “What do you do when you feel/react like this?”, “What are your thoughts then?” 
  5. When you are preparing (building questions in your head), you stay in your head, you do not enter his/hers. 
  6. Our language and non-verbal cues are important and analysed. 
  7. Explore, explore their reasons and world. 
  8. Use language like, “In my experience, this is also one of the reasons something like this can happen. Do you think that is applicable to you?”
  9. Bring the client back to their thoughts. Or they will drag you into their experience. 
  10. Focus on client. 
  11. Look at the positive aspects and probe further there. 

Majority of the problems arise because the state defines counselling as advice and usually that means an agenda. Nivedita took over and probed for questions that got more information out. 

“So you want to take admission in the college without support of your family. How would that be possible? What goes through your head when this happens?” 

Rural Care Practice

  • These cases are challenging because they are looking for particular help + need counselling. It is also challenging for them to get to their feelings. Help them to guide them inwards. When you say, “you feel this” -> what are your thoughts associated with it?
  • Information giving is okay and important. It’s one of the functions of the counsellor. As a counsellor, you can guide them, get information and help (specially if you sense fear). In the example, when Prita explained the problem back, the client visibly relaxed. To find their aim, we have to counsel and clarify. 
  • When looking at options for support, you have to look at what their family and support system looks like if there is family. What is family? How often do you see them? Do they see you? Probe further. 
  • Relationship as a resource is very important. In times of crisis, we have to mirror the fact that relationship have to be strengthened vs. weakened. 
  • Avoidance and certain thoughts are coping mechanisms. 
  • Most victims, especially children, start avoiding. 
  • When discussing cases, specially with the client, it’s important to recognize their emotions but very important to not add fuel to the fire. Stay calm and stable. You have to be in control – even if they are not. 
  • Our body language says a lot. Try to stabilize it. Counselling is a relationship. You cannot put conditions on it. At any cost, you have to be with them. If they flip, ask them why. 
  • Stay objective. You are there to solve a problem. They have a family and friends. You do not have to take on that role for them. 
  • IF they say that they are in love, what do they mean by love? If you want to bring awareness about their limitations, ask “Well, say this happened to your friend and she came to you for advice, what would you say?”
  • In cases where a couple ran away, the goal would be to not run away. 
  • In cases of alcoholism – when someone acts out, the next day, they are usually apologetic and feel guilty. 
  • People usually cope in emotional ways, thoughts and behavioural changes. 

The last activity of the workshop was to set goals of counselling for different case scenarios. The participants were split up into 6-7 groups and were each given a case study to work through goals of counselling on. These cases were based on real cases that PEC has dealt with over the years. 
One group had a case wherein a man was physically and emotionally abusing his pregnant wife. So, in this case (the woman being the client), the questions would be 

A : When did the problem start? How often does it happen? 

B  : What happens after he beats you? What has changed since this has started?

C : What do you do when it happens? After it happens? 

D : What are some other ways that you can help yourself when he tries to hit you?

E : How can you process and look after yourself if this happens again? Can  you talk to someone about this? 

F : Who else is in your family? Where do they live? How often do they visit? How are your neighbors? What is the relationship with them like? How far away do your parents live? 

G : Is it possible to lock yourself in the kitchen? Is it possible to yell out for the neighbors? Is it possible to call a helpline? 

After each group presented their case studies, a discussion followed. In the discussion, and during the presentation, the participants + the trainers made the following points : 

  1. Ask them what they want out of counselling. 
  2. Word it along similar lines, “What are your expectations?”, “What do you want to solve?”
  3. Ask them what price they are willing to pay. Some egs are : hard work, patience, courage, time, money, swallowing pride, discipline, seeking help etc. Everything comes at a cost. 
  4. Awareness comes slowly. So when you probe deeper into what they want, they will slowly realise if they are really willing to do it or not. 
  5. While generating options -> look at how aware they are about their decision. 
  6. Once you look at the different facets of the problem, ask them how you can help them, what expectations have they brought in to the counselling session. 
  7. When selecting options, ask them what they want to pick and ask them if they are willing to pay the price for that. If they aren’t, what is the next one they would like to pick? 

The decisions stay with the client. Our only responsibility is to stay with them and their pain and help them build awareness. Our job is to simply be their mirror. They already have family and friends and it is not upto us to advice them or chide them. We are simply there to be with them – no matter what. 

With this exercise, the two-day workshop came to a close.

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